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Writing Process Blog Tour

Writing redhead
The My Writing Process Blog Tour (#MyWritingProcess on Twitter) has been doing the rounds on the internet lately.  Participating writers of all genres, backgrounds, and tastes have to answer the same four deceptively simple questions about how they approach the endlessly fascinating and diverse process of writing.  I heard about it from Edith Hope Bishop, a young writer I met at Sirens last year.  She wrote one about place and cafe culture and writing that matters.  I loved it, and agreed to write one of my own.  Owing to Technical Difficulties, it's a day late, but I suspect that's part of my process, too.

Part of the Tour is passing the baton on to another writer to run with on their blog.  I chose Will Alexander,  author of the 2012 National Book Award winning Goblin Secrets. He is not only one of the best writers I know, but one of the kindest and most thoughtful people, and a valued beta-reader for my WIP. Look for his post on (or around) 6/17/14.


1.    What Am I Working On?
I have just sent a final draft of a middle-grade fantasy called The Evil Wizard Smallbone to my agent.  It is set on the coast of Maine in something like the present--if the present included Evil Wizards and selkie towns and werecoyotes on  motorcycles.  Soon I will begin the process of turning two novellas into a clockwork-punk ghost story/mystery novel that may be YA or may be adult, or possibly both. Or neither.

2.     Why Do I Write What I Write?

Because that’s what I like to write.  In my graduate student days, I wrote a lot of things I had to write, and I did not enjoy it.  Writing is hard work for me (see below), and when I left the academic life, I swore (in the Scarlett O’Hara vein) that I’d never write non-fiction again.  I did, of course, and do—into every working writer’s life a little non-fiction must fall, and I’m resigned to that.  Sometimes, I even enjoy it.  But when I write to please myself--and to say some things about family and friends and class and history and gender and folklore that I think need saying--I'm feel as if I'm doing the work I'm meant to do.  I'm just grateful that it often pleases editors and readers as well, since I can no more “write to the market” than I can fly to the moon.

3.     How Does My Work Differ From Others Of Its Genre?

It’s old-fashioned.  My middle grade books are more like the classic children’s books in their structure and their wandering plots than the streamlined, fast-paced middle-grades most people are writing now.  I think these books are grand, mind you.  I enjoy reading them; I just can’t write them.  When I write for older readers, my models are the Victorian novel and those modern novelists who looked backward for their inspiration, like Angela Carter and Leon Garfield and Sylvia Townsend Warner.  I love rich language and unfamiliar words and strange, regional idioms, and I use them, as Elizabeth Goudge and Dorothy Dunnett did (if not as well) without apology or explanation.  This does not make me unique—Neil Gaiman is a master of all the various registers of high diction and low, and so are a host of other writers.  But it does make me slightly unusual. 

4.    How Does my Writing Process Work?

Long ago, a friend compared my writing process to the growth of a coral reef:  layer after layer of words, laid down, knocked off, rebuilt, doggedly, patiently, over the course of—well, centuries would be a gross exaggeration, but that’s sure how it feels.  Certainly writing a book takes me longer than the year to eighteen months most publishers (and readers) prefer.

The truth is, I’m not actually a very good writer.  My plots resemble Swiss cheese (bland, yellowish, and full of holes), my characters resemble puppets (Mr. Punch yells; Mrs. Punch drops the baby), my writing is uneven.  The dialogue that sings in my head turns into inconsequential chatter on the page, and transition that seemed brilliant on the walk to the café turn out to make no sense whatsoever when written down.

Really.  I’m not being modest here.  Just ask my partner and first reader Ellen, or my first-tier beta readers.  They’re kind, but firm.  This Will Not Do, Dear.  What about the werecoyotes?  Why does she like him? He’s a train wreck.  What did you think you were doing in Chapter 6? Why? Why? Why?

So I go back and try to make all that clearer. And then I do it again. And again.

Between public drafts come self-imposed drafts to fix problems I have identified myself—although sadly not until I’ve already followed those problems through a chapter or even a complete draft.  Sometimes the fixes are suggested by conversations with helpful friends, but mostly I have to figure out myself what will make my book more like, oh, a good complex cheddar or a nicely veined and aged French blue.

Luckily, I like rewriting.  My last novel went through ten drafts.  Most of my short stories take at least seven.  The Freedom Maze took twenty-seven, not counting turd-polishing passes over chapters I ended up discarding.  It’s not an efficient way of doing things, and I don’t recommend it to anyone else, but it’s my process and I’ve come to accept it, if not to love it.

When I’m well into a project, I write every day, or as close to every day as I can manage. I prefer to write in cafés, but really, I can write just about anywhere. I scribble on the subway (most of this post was written on the Broadway Local) or waiting for a doctor or my dinner date or on an airplane or on a park bench or in a museum.  I can even write at home. The café is for intensive, uninterrupted drafting or editing. They make better chai than I do, and if I need to know what a character looks like, I have only to look around me.

Zero drafts are always by hand in a notebook. Zero point one draft is when I type it into the computer.  On the continuum between pantser and plotter (did you think it was a binary?  It’s not.) I alternate between making it up as I go along and planning ahead.  I usually go in knowing the beginning, a couple of things in the middle, and the end, all of which is subject to change.  Except the end.  Mostly.  When I have no idea what is going to happen next, I narrate my plot—frequently to Ellen, but not infrequently to friends at lunch or strangers encountered at parties or even to myself, in notebook scribbles or daydreams on long walks.  When I’ve got a complete draft, I make an outline and a timeline on a Google calendar print-out of whatever year my WIP is set in.  This is very useful, and if I’d thought of it sooner, I might have finished Freedom Maze in only twenty drafts.

I can only concentrate on one thing at a time. I do pass-through revisions for plot, passes for character, passes for theme, passes for voice, passes for structure.  Most of these remain private—it does not do to abuse one’s beta readers. They get exhausted and cranky.  Finally, when I am finally almost satisfied with the product, (or Ellen tells me to let go already), I send it to my agent or editor who either does or does not ask for changes.

And then I start on the next thing.  I’ve got a list of novel ideas that should last me for the next forty years or so, at my present rate.  I better get cracking.
 

Much Ado About Nothing

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This is going to have to be brief, since London does not mean sitting in bed writing posts, even reviews of interesting but ultimately not quite satisfying productions of classic plays.

Last night we saw Much Ado About Nothing, with James Earl Jones as Benedict and Vanessa Redgrave as Beatrice, and many other good actors as the rest of the characters, whose names I don't have because we didn't spring for the program (although now I wish we had--I really want to know who played the Prince, because he was great).  Mark Rylance was the director, and the conceit he used was a bunch of American soldiers, headed by a general with a chest full of medals, billeted on an English country house during WWII.  The stage was bare but for a single large structure like a covered bridge, an arm-chair, and a victrola.  The costumes were WWII utilitarian, with khaki uniforms all around for the men, land-girlish outfits for the women, and very few bright colors outside of Hero's orange gown for the big feast.

I have no quarrel with the conceit.  It works conceptually, with the Dogberry and the rest as air-raid wardens and the clowns as boy-scouts and Claudio as a flying ace, even with Beatrice and Benedict as older lovers, set in their ways and disinclined to give up their freedom (although it might have worked better 15 years ago, when they were middle-aged rather than verging on elderly).  What kept the play from gelling, for me, was the direction.  It didn't seem to have a firm logic behind it.  I didn't feel that the characters cohered.  The Prince was good--kind of McArthurish, kind of waggish, kind of irritating in a very powerful male way.  Redgrave was Redgrave, and very, very charming--with that beautiful, flexible voice and that firm command of gesture and expression.  Jones seemed a little at sea with Benedict, however, and not at all comfortable in his body.  And everybody else was all over the place.  It was like Rylance was directing them all to be Rylance, like Robin Williams on downers, and they just couldn't do it.  Plus--I hold no brief for miked productions, and was very happy to see one where the actors were just using lungs and craft to speak the lines.  But when characters are directed to speak over each other, naturalistically, and mutter to themselves, well, lines get lost.  Sometimes important lines.

So, no.  I didn't love it.  I'm glad we went, though.  It made me think.  Besides, the theater was nice and warm, and I'd been cold all day.

Cinderella

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Cheap tickets showed up on TDF, and of course we had to go.  We lucked out, too, with orchestra seats--extreme left of house, with a clear view of the Raccoon climbing up into the trees and the 4 white mice/horses being readied to trundle onto the stage, but we were far enough up front to see everybody's expression, so it worked out very well, I thought.  No fewer than three understudies--either there's a bug going through the cast, or the Prince, Jean-Michel, and one of the Woodland Creatures (the Raccoon, I think), thought, hey, it's Wednesday, let's take the night off.  My guess is bug:  the Fairy Godmother sounded a little hoarse and Cinderella had a bit of a burr to her voice.

Ah, the glories of live theater.

I loved a lot of things about this production.  I loved the songs (of course--what's not to love?).  They were all there, plus a few that had been cut out of South Pacific way back in the day and hung around in the Rogers and Hammerstein songbook until pressed into service here.  Ellen said that some of the harmonies were thinner and arrangements poppier than in 1965, which may very well be the case--my ear isn't that finely tuned.  Also, I was too busy laughing (with delight, I promise) as Rebecca Luker, as the Fairy Godmother in a lavender-mauve number with panniers AND swags AND pleats AND sparkles AND bell sleeves AND bows AND a train AND TWIRLY SILVER HORNS SPROUTING OUT OF HER HEAD, OMG swung above the stage singing her heart out.  I loved the costumes, which were pretty much uniformly over the top, except, of course, for Cinderella's tasteful and relatively simple (if very glittery) ball gown and banquet dress (yes, there is a banquet as well as a ball in this one.  What?  They had to stretch the plot to two hours running time, didn't they?)  I liked Laura Osnes as Cinderella.  She radiates kindness (which is harder to play than niceness) and sincerity, giving the proceedings a heart they otherwise lacked.  Oh, the Prince (played, tonight, by the understudy Andy Jones) was warm and sweet and innocent, and I liked him, too.  But a lot of the other actors seemed to be in another, worldlier, play, full of modern catch-phrases and slightly smarmy pronouncements about following your dream and believing in yourself and being what you want to be that set my teeth ever-so-slightly on edge.

Which was what I didn't like about the production.  In trying to update Cinderella, to make it socially conscious, Douglas Carter Beane (who wrote The Nance, which we saw in August), threw in every single pious cliche he could think of.  Some of them worked pretty well.  I liked the very different thing he did with the slipper schtick (which I don't want to ruin for you, though The New York Times review did), and it was nice that one of the Wicked Stepsisters was kind of a nice girl with dreams of her own (and spectacles).  But the politics (yes, this is a Cinderella with a political agenda--impeccably democratic, I need hardly say) were, um, naive. And the sexual politics were not nearly as enlightened as the play clearly thought they were.  Let's just say that when the good stepsister and Cinderella have their moment of reconciliation and communion, it's over the fact the guys they're in love with, and that the Fairy Godmother spends a lot of time giving poor Cindy pep talks about how she is too worthy of the Prince's love, and leave it at that, shall we?

And yet, and yet.  No matter how it's been reimagined, rejiggered, and inflated, Cinderella remains an essentially good-hearted play.  I shook my head a fair amount, but I teared up over "Ten Minutes Ago I Met You" (that may be because a friend sang it at our wedding, but still) and "In My Own Little Corner" (which, in 1965, was The Story Of My Life, you betcha).  And I did laugh with delight at Cinderella's stage-magic transformations from ragamuffin into Disney Princess, and "The Stepsister's Lament" and the ball scene and the Fox and the Raccoon (who replaced the less-cute Rats as Coachman and Footman) leading the seeking Prince a merry chase through the woods.  I even liked the social reformer and firebrand Jean-Michel, who served as the good stepsister's slightly nerdy love interest.

And the legion of little girls in floofy dresses, with sparkly tiaras a little askew and stars in their eyes?  I loved them a lot--especially the one who wore her tiara with a black skirt and a little leather jacket.

ETA:  I owe you guys a review of The Glass Menagerie.  I've got it about half written, in a notebook, but I'm having a hard time sorting out my reactions to it.  A thorny play, Glass Menagerie, and an interesting production.  I'll deliver eventually, I promise.

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The Weir, and Other Stories

Burroughs portrait
Do you ever have thematic days?  Like, there's a piece on the radio in the morning about shrimp and then someone posts a shrimp recipe on Facebook and the lady in front of you at the fish shop (yes, we have a dedicated fish shop, Joon's, on the corner of 98th and Amsterdam) is buying shrimp?  In Chateau Riverside, we call this phenomenon a "plate o' shrimp" experience, for reasons lost in the mists of time, and Wednesday was kind of like that, only the theme was stories about stories.

I grant you that it's arguable that most of my days are organized around stories--reading them, writing them, trading them with my friends.  But Wednesday seemed particularly thematically laden.  After an afternoon pounding away at the same first scene I've been trying to get right for a while now (it's beginning to show signs of shape, finally.  Note to self:  quit trying to jam novels into 12,000 word stories. Kthanx), I took myself out to dinner, where I finished the book I've been reading on my phone, A.S. Byatt's Ragnarok.  Which is, among other things, a story about the importance of myth and how it can function in someone's life.

The myth Byatt is dealing with is the Twilight of the Northern Gods, and she does it beautifully, with lists and long descriptions and little philosophical bits stitching together the basic tragic tale of divine greed, violence, cruelty, and self-destruction.  Alongside this, she tells the story of a thin child--her young self, more or less, evacuated to the English countryside during the Blitz with her distant, scholarly mother while her father fought in France, and how she took comfort from those vivid, bloody stories, which seemed so much more realistic, on an emotional level, than the local Vicar's bible stories.  The blood, greed, and sometimes incomprehensible violence of the Norse gods did not give her an escape from the fear of war and possibly losing her father. They gave her a way to face her fears and accept them, as the Norse gods did, who lived all their divine lives knowing that they would die at last in a great battle they would have brought on themselves.

Which brings me to Conor McPherson's The Weir, which we saw at the Irish Repertory Theater down on 22nd Street.  It, too, is about stories and how even the grimmest and most difficult ones can bring their own kind of comfort, drawing people together, making connections between them, creating and solidifying community.  During the course of a rainy evening in an Irish pub, four men and a woman (a "blow-in," just moved from Dublin) trade tales, and by so doing, connect and support each other in different times of need.  What begins as an awkward flirtation with the pretty stranger, with the local garage owner--a hard-drinking blow-hard by the name of Jack-- telling a colorful story about a house built on a fairy road, an old woman and a child, and some inexplicable knocks on the door, proceeds through a two ghost stories to Valerie's own chilling, and very personal, story of loss and regret, followed by Jack's second story, as haunting as, but very different both in tone and content, than the first, told after the other men have left to Valerie and the barkeep, Brenden, who is the only one who tells no story, because he's the publican, and publicans don't tell stories, they listen to them.

It's a wonderful play.  Nothing of note happens--arguably, nothing happens at all.  People drift into their local, down a few small ones and pints, tell stories, leave again.  Jack and Finbar, a local tycoon, are bosom enemies, clearly been sniping at each other since they were in short pants, not always good-naturedly.  Jim is a good boy, not the sharpest pencil in the box, but reliable, takes care of his aged, ailing mother, doesn't talk much, shy as bedamned, but comes out with a truly chilling story that might or might not have happened (he had the flu at the time, and had been drinking and digging a grave in the rain), but is utterly believable as he's telling it.  Brenden complains about the German tourists who keep him in business and treat him like furniture and his sisters and the weather, and is clearly as annoyed by his regulars as he is fond of them.  Valerie looks as if she might stir things up a bit, and does, but not in the way anybody--including the audience--expects.  And yet, after maybe the first 5 minutes, which were almost necessarily a little short on narrative tension, being all about taking chairs off tables, turning on lights, and discovering that the Guinness pump was buggered, I was riveted.

Most of it was the writing, certainly.  Conor McPherson does loneliness and fear and the ways in which inarticulate people manage (or not) to connect really, really well.  It was one of the things I loved in The Seafarer, which I saw when?  2-3 years ago?  He also manages to write extremely realistic plays that acknowledge the power of the supernatural.  You can choose to believe or not believe in his fairies, ghosts, and devils--they don't have to be factual to be metaphors, and they'll still be metaphors if they're factual. He has a dandy way with the poetry of common speech, how people naturally go in and out of formality, dialect, or profanity, depending on their audience and their relationship with them. And he was very well served by the actors in this production, who really inhabited their parts.  I particularly liked John Keating (who I've seen in a bunch of other plays, always in character parts--he's kind of funny-looking, tall and rangy and shock-haired, with big, big, wondering eyes in a sharp little face)  as Jim and Billy Carter as Brenden, because they just felt so very real, even when they were listening, which is mostly what they did.  I liked Tessa Klein as Valerie, too--anxious, on her best behavior, a white wine drinker in a beer world, but in an apologetic, I'm-so-sorry-I-don't-like-beer-I'm-so-stupid way, a good listener, a brave and driven story-teller.  The horror and art of the story Valerie tells are measures of her need and her reluctance to tell it, and she (Ms Klein) really got that.

So, a good day all around.

And yesterday was Yom Kippur, which we observed at Romemu, a Jewish Renewal congregation that can best be described by Buddhism meets Hassidisim meets Universal Love, Man.  There is ecstatic dancing, there is lots of music, there is scriptural exegesis, there is bad poetry.  There is a lot of heart.  There were also a lot of very moving stories of regrets, hopes of renewal, wishes for compassion, strength, and community.  Listening, I was full of gratitude for my health, for my relationship, for my life that contains I could wish it to have.  So now I have to go write.  Because stories are what I do.  And stories are important.

Yeah.

The Nance

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I started this last week, but it's still pretty much accurate--including not quite being unpacked.  The piano's gone, however, and I now have 25 square feet of living room space I didn't have before, which is a good thing.  Anyway, finishing it now, and hoping to Be More Timely in the Future.  (Ha!)

Back in New York after a glorious 6 weeks in Roanoke, VA, teaching Studies in Genre Writing: Fantasy in the Hollins Children's Literature MA Program.  We are almost unpacked, absolutely disorganized, I'm behind on many deadlines, and inclined to keep my writing time for fiction, but there's a Man With A Van coming at some unspecified hour to pick up my grandmother's unfixable baby grand piano (well, not actually unfixable, but it'll cost the earth and the fact is, I don't play the piano) and take it away to a charity that fixes and donates reasonably nice pianos (which this one is) to schools and so on. wild_irises
is in town, and we took the day off to spend with her, walking in Riverside Park, going up to Broadway to the Columbia Farmers Market and a stop at Le Monde for a little thyme/honey limeade, fetching up after some fennel/chicken/cilantro salad on Broadway, where Ellen had procured TDF tix for The Nance, with Nathan Lane, on what turns out to be one of its last nights before it closes.

Thus, a review.

Short version:  it's a good play.  It manages to be genuinely funny about a thorny and loaded subject (self-hating gay men--in this case, in 1930's New York in the declining days of burlesque) without flinching from the realities of the situation.  The writing is smart as well as clever, the music is spot-on, the costumes convincing.  The acting is remarkable, especially Broadway newcomer Jonny Orsini as the Love Interest.  And Nathan Lane, of course.  Nathan Lane is amazing.  So is Cady Huffman, who breathes statuesque life into the rather one-dimensional left-wing stripper Sylvie.

And yet.  I dunno.  I wanted to like it more than I ended up liking it.  I felt for Chauncey, I really did.  I've met men (and women) like him, so badly damaged by the loathing society has heaped on them that they can't help but pass that damage on.  It's not a particularly nuanced portrait, but a musical is not a particularly nuanced art form, and (perhaps more to the point) Lane isn't a particularly nuanced actor. Thing was, I just couldn't see why the sweet semi-innocent Ned, who'd left his young wife because he thought she deserved a man who could love her the way she needed to be loved, saw to love in Chauncey.  And since their relationship is the heart of the play (as opposed to its political plot, which, as far as I can tell, exists to give the other characters something to do), this was a real problem.

Plus, the girls didn't really have much to do but throw their pasties and their gum-chewing accents around.  But that's
show business on Broadway these days.  You have to go Off to see interesting women doing interesting things these days.

Still, there were lovely moments, quite a lot of very funny low comedy, and the decor was splendid.  We had a wonderful time deconstructing it afterwards, and I only wish I could remember half the smart things we said, so I could transcribe them here.  But that's what happens when I put off writing a review until I have time.

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Love's Labors Lost

Voguegirl
I have a review of The Nance started for you, but first I HAVE to tell about our adventure tonight.  Because it was a real--if mild--adventure, of the completely unplanned and serendipitous kind, and even while it was happening I didn't quite believe it.

So, it was our anniversary today.  One of them, anyway, the most recent one, the We Got Legally Married in Massachusetts one, with a rabbi and a license and everything.  It was also the day The Fall of the Kings audio book goes on pre-sale before its August 26th pub date, so there was a lot to celebrate.  We chose to meet a friend for a picnic in Central Park, with a bottle of champagne Ellen's brother sent us and a kale salad I made and some pate the friend brought.  We met, we ate, we talked.  We ran into Helen Pilinovsky, her husband and darling son Oberon, who ran around handing us cookies and grinning while we talked.  We had, in short a perfect New York evening.  And when we parted, Ellen said, "Let's go see if we can get into see the play."  And I said, "It's too late."  And she said, "I have a feeling."  So we went and got at the very, very end of the standby line, behind maybe 40 other people waiting to be told if there were any extra seats to be had.  And the play started and it got dark and we could hear the singing from inside the theater, and there were still 30+ people standing patiently, and I was feeling not particularly patient and maybe ready to give up, when this guy in a towering white headwrap and a loose white shirt kind of glided up to us and said, "I was supposed to meet some people here and give them these, but I guess they aren't coming.  You take them."

So we did.  With profuse thanks.  We waited for a few more minutes until there was a "seating break," and then we sat down, maybe 10 minutes into the play--pretty good seats, too, on the side and about half-way up the theater--looked at each other, grinned, and watched the play.

We liked it lots.  We've both seen LLL many times, separately and together, classically presented, reimagined, set in nearly every century between the 16th and the 20th.  But we've never seen anything remotely like this one.  For one thing, it's a musical, with songs written by Michael Friedman of Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson fame and an intermittently Shakespearean book by Alex Timbers. For another, while it's not exactly LLL, it's not exactly not LLL either.  The plot is basically the same, although trimmed down to 90 lean, mean minutes of running time.  The characters are all there, although there might have been a pedant missing--I'm not entirely sure.  The King and his gentleman scholars are overprivileged, overeducated recent Ivy League grads.  The Princess and her court are their Seven Sisters opposite numbers in strappy dresses and stilettos.  Their speeches veer from the Shakespearean text to plain modern dialogue to the occasional improv (when the mikes all squeaked and roared and occasionally died during one scene) to Shakespearean song to interpolated number without warning, but with occasional rhyme, and plenty of reason, once I figured out what they were doing.

A lot of it was for comic effect--some of it a little on the cheap side, some of it genuinely hilarious, like when the King and his lads pretend to be German expressionist performance artists prancing and gesturing to a Philip Glassian number.  Some of it underscored issues of class, race, and gender that Shakespeare was indeed playing with, giving them a modern context and a modern intent no citizen of 16th Century England could have imagined. And the end was genuinely heartbreaking.  A year and a day is too long for a play indeed, and the way Berowne said it, I couldn't really hold out a lot of hope for poor Rosalind.

The acting was great.  Colin Donnell, who played Berowne, was in Anything Goes, which I did see, although I don't remember whether I saw him in it.  I do, however, remember seeing Daniel Breaker, who played the King of Navarre, in Passing Strange. He's older now, more solid as a presence and a voice.  I was really impressed.  Rebecca Naomi Jones, who played Jacquenetta, is a Passing Strange alumna, too.  I loved her.  Also Patti Murin as the Princess (who was not in Passing Strange).  It's not an easy part, there not being much personality in it, as much as a series of more or less conventional attitudes and reactions.  But I felt, watching her, that there was a real person there, with a real heart and real opinions.  She was in Lysistrata Jones, which I missed, and now I wish I hadn't.

Seeing anything in the Delacourt, with birds flying by and the moon rising over the Lodge where the King and his lads were on their scholarly retreat and real water in the hot tub, is always a thrill.  Especially on our anniversary, sitting in seats handed to us by a complete stranger for no good reason when there was no way in hell we were ever going to get in.  And the show closes Sunday.  This is the kind of thing that happens around Ellen.  The luck of the Kushners, she calls it.  I just think it's magic. As is she.
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Um, hi.

It's been a while since I've written.  Truthfully, it's been a while since I've written anything--a while for me, anyway.  There was this annual exam, you see, that turned into a rather sudden hysterectomy, which completely cured the problem and flattened me for three weeks, made off with all my energy and the better part of my brain for even longer.  In fact, they're not back yet, after five weeks and change.

"Complete recovery in 3 weeks," the man said.  "Ha!" I say.  Also, "Thank you for the robots.  This could have been so much worse."

Anyway, Ellen and I took eegatland (in town for BEA and early promotion on Rose Under Fire, which I have an ARC of, nyah, nyah, nyah) to see Nikolai and the Others at Lincoln Center last night.  It was wonderful and thoughtful and I had a lot to say about it (last night, anyway), so I thought I'd attempt a review. I have to get back on the horse sometime, don't I?  Even if I can't quite say what I mean and flounder a bit?

Right.  Here goes.

Richard Nelson has written a lot of plays, none of which I've seen but his musical of James Joyce's The Dead, which I recall as being rather wonderful, in a sad, elegiac, atmospheric, deeply human way.  No catchy tunes, not a lot of plot, but lots of feelings, feelingly expressed.  Which pretty well describes Nikolai and the Others--except for not being a musical. Both are about longing and nostalgia and the fear of death.  Both build their effects slowly, word by word, allowing the characters all the space they need to come alive for us--and frequently, for each other.  But there the similarities cease. The Dead is peopled largely by characters who are afraid to show what they feel or say what they think. Nikolai is peopled by characters who talk about their feelings and opinions All The Time.  Sometimes they actually even tell the truth.

It's 1948.  Nikolai Nabokov (Vladimir's cousin) has been invited to a weekend in the Berkshire home of Lucia Davidova, who knows just about everybody who is anybody among the Russian artists living in America.  She's George Balanchine's BFF, and good friend to Igor Stravinsky and at least two of his wives, also their past and current husbands and fiances and nieces, not to mention assistants, adjutants, and a conductor (Serge Koussevitsky). She invites them all to a house party to honor the aged and ailing designer Sergey Sudeikin on the occasion of his name day. The house party is Nelson's contrivance, and a very useful one, bringing all the characters into close contact over the 24 hours the play covers, eating and drinking, talking, joking, annoying, advising, helping, and hurting each other.  Not a whole lot actually happens.  There's a dinner, a rehearsal of Stravinsky and Balanchine's Orpheus (with real dancers, who also act), a brief fling (Balanchine could not resist a young dancer to save his life), a series of favors asked and granted, a series of betrayals, personal and institutional, a health crisis.  Nothing is decided; nothing is resolved.  And yet--for me, at least--it was fully satisfying, a glimpse of how great artists are both human and inhuman in the way they approach their lives:  at once needy and ruthless, worldly and gullible, steeped in emotion and oddly cold, quiveringly sensitive and utterly clueless.

Nikolai may or may not be a true picture of the artistic Russian community in the early days of the Cold War, but it certainly feels real.  It made us laugh and sniff a little and stand around in the warm summer night by the Lincoln Center fountain, talking about art and how, for some people, it's what's left when everything else has been stripped away, and why it's needed now and forever, however it is defined.  Which is pretty much my definition of a good night at the theater.

And that's all I got.  I meant to talk about the direction (by David Cromer, who directed the Our Town I loved so much) and the perfectly post-war costumes and the lovely, lived-in set, Michael Ceveris's perfectly gyroscopic Balanchine, lordly, sleek, focussed, and Blair Brown's delightful, delighted, worried, charming Vera Stravinsky.  But I'm out of words, and have worked on this long enough.  Reading it over, I'm not sure it quite makes sense.  It certainly doesn't convey the excitement and enchantment I felt, or why.  But it's the best I can do right now.  Here's hoping next week will be better.  I am So Very Behind.

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The Testament of Mary

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So we walk into the Walter Kerr Theater, where The Testament of Mary is currently in previews, and we saw the audience milling around a glass box set to one side of a very cluttered stage.  Being Us, we made our way up there, pronto-pups, and picked our way over and around 1) a ladder, laid flat; 2) several folding chairs, draped with what looked like Army surplus jackets and blankets and a long table; 3) a bird cage with large iron spikes, suitable for building railroads, on the bottom; 4) a rather small live vulture, possibly sedated, certainly remarkably laid-back despite being surrounded by many curious playgoers; 5) an assortment of amphorae, buckets, bottles, and carpenter's tools; 6) two large coils of barbed wire; 7) a wheel on a post, like the one dominating the right-hand side of Breugel the Elder's Crucifixion (http://tinyurl.com/bw4xyuy) until we got to the focus of the scrum, which was Fiona Shaw, robed in rose and Virgin's Mantle Blue, seated on a plastic chair inside a large glass case, holding a lily (for purity) in one hand and an apple (for Eve) in the other, a drift of candles at her feet, gazing out over our heads with a half-smile.  I think it was meant to be beatific, but Fiona Shaw doesn't do beatific.  What she does do is intense and honest and riveting and, oh, yes--harrowing.

That's what The Testament of Mary was.  Harrowing.  In a good way.

I mean, if we presume, on any level at all, that there was a historical personage upon whom the entire glory and shame of organized Christianity was inscribed, he had a mother, right?  And although none of the gospel writers (my son's misfit friends, Mary calls them, hands disdainfully shooing them away from her) record her as saying much of anything at all, she must have had some opinions, right?  She lived quite a while after her son (she can't say his name) died, she was an unwilling witness to the things her son's friends were saying and writing about him (and her).  She must have had some thoughts about that.  Or at least that's what Colm Toibin reasoned when he wrote this play (later a novella).  And she might have been pretty pissed off at the whole thing--including the miracles, which were genuine miracles, in this reading, but possibly best left undone.  Especially Lazarus.  And the Crucifixion?  Even worse than you'd thought, but not for the reasons you might think.

And all this--All this--is conveyed in one, long ecstatic 90 minute monologue by a single woman in a long-sleeved black dress over grey pants and floppy boots she never bothers to zip up.  She never sits still for a moment, moving chairs, ladder, bird cage (the bird itself disappears, along with the glass cage and the candles, before the monologue starts), table, barbed wire, papers, pots, and buckets here and there according to what part of the story she's telling and how she feels about it.  It is movement both restless and purposeful, the almost unconscious activity of a woman who is used to keeping house for men who don't pick up chairs they knock over or put anything back where they've found it. If she creates a cross out of a folded table, a ladder, barbed wire, and nails, well, she's got crosses on her mind, and so does the audience.  From time to time, as if unconsciously, she recreates ones of the great iconic images of Mary we know from art: Pieta, Annunciation, Assumption. And all the time, she talks.  Sometimes of her son, who took up with a gang of misfits, who left home when she begged him not to, who became a stranger she could not talk to, let alone understand.  Frequently of her friends, Mary and Martha and Miriam, all of whom had to cope with miracles in their back yards, which became slightly less miraculous as they had to live with them.  Have you wondered what happened to Lazarus after he was raised?  Yeah.  It wasn't easy on his sisters, is alls I'm saying.

This is a very angry piece, and Fiona Shaw does anger beautifully, in all its shades and manifestations.  There are parts that reminded me a bit of her Medea, bits that (almost impossibly) reminded me of the ghostly witch she played in Season whateveritwas of "True Blood."  At the end of the evening, she looked (understandably) almost as harrowed as the audience, and I wondered how on earth she could go on doing that, night after night, eight performances a week for however long the play runs.  I also wondered how many theatergoers are going to rush to buy expensive Broadway tickets to something that raw, that furious, that intense, that feminist, in the broadest possible sense.  Between them, Colm Toibin and Fiona Shaw leave you nowhere to hide, and that's not particularly fashionable these days.  But, boy, is it ever good theater.

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The Pre-Raphaelites

Rockwellartgirl
We're in Washington at the extremely charming Morrison-Clarke Hotel, recovering from a day spent among the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood--or at least that part of it represented at extensive and beautifully curated show currently at the National Gallery.  I've been familiar with many (though not by any means all) of these images ever since I discovered Millais and Rossetti in at The Harvard Coop poster shop in 1972, which allowed me to have Mariana and Persephone in my graduate-student apartment (over my mother's cast-off sofa).  When I taught Freshman Comp, I had my students do an analysis of what was going on in Mariana and Isabella (the one with Lorenzo passing her a blood orange and her nasty brother kicking the greyhound) and how they knew.  Good times, good times.

So, I'm a Pre-Raph fan from WAY back.  I saw the Burne-Jones exhibit, I've mooned over the Rossettis and Hunts in Harvard's collection and visited every canvas I was near when I went to the British Isles.  But I've never seen the variety I saw today, not of the original Brotherhood, at any rate.  Here are Holman Hunts and Ford Madox Browns I'd never seen and lots of Millaises, as well as The Greatest Hits (in Morris's case, the Only Hit) of Rossetti, Burne-Jones, and Morris, as well as the work of less well-known disciples such as John William Inchbold (who couldn't draw animals to save his life), Rosa Brett (who showed as Rosarius so she wouldn't get flack for being a Lady Artist) and Thomas Seddon (who spent 11 hours a day for 120 days painting the Valley of Jehoshaphat, and then had to finish it from photographs at home).  There are statues and tiles and several Burne-Jones tapestries and the chair Morris had made for the digs he shared with Rossetti and Burne-Jones and painted a scene on.  There are wallpaper designs and several editions of the Kelmscott Chaucer, and more books in another part of the museum we're going to see tomorrow, because there's no such thing as too many pre-Raph books, you betcha.

And you know what?  This stuff is good.  I mean, I love the aesthetic, and would even when the figures are out of drawing (which some of them are) or the compositions are curious or the symbolism outweighs the sense of the image (which is fairly often).  But ah!  Those finely-textured rocks!  Those beautifully-shaded leaves and petals!  Those billowing, glowing, lickable damasks and velvets and changeable taffetas!  And, O, the hair--crimped, waved, braided, curled, blonde, red, mahogany, black as night, streaming over columnar throats, flowing down supple backs, springing as if electrified from alabaster brows, both male and female.  This is art you can jump into and roll around in, that makes fantasy so utterly, palpably real that you can't not believe in it.  It is, in fact, the perfect art for a budding historical fantasist, a marriage of the real and the imagined. Certainly, it worked that way for me.

One last thing.  As I walked through the rooms, seeing Rossetti and Burne-Jones and Millais hung side by side by side, I couldn't help but be struck by how lush and sensual and organic Rossetti's images are, how spare and angular and architectural Burne-Jones', and how Millais kind of strikes a middle note between them, less ascetic than Burne-Jones but not as fleshy as Rossetti, and more of a realist than both.  When I was in grad school, I was all about Rossetti.  Now, I'm fonder of Millais and Hunt and Brown, whose women look like individuals, whose myths are homelier, whose relationship with mystery is earthier than the fevered extravagances of Rossetti (who gave everybody he painted his own plump, curling lips) or the ethereal calm of Burne-Jones.  Still, the only picture that nearly made me cry, and I don't know why, was Burne-Jones's The Baleful Head.  Go figure.

The exhibit is well worth seeing, if you can possibly swing it.  We're going to go again tomorrow morning, on the way to the train.  Just for a second peek.  Because its like will not come again.

Anna Karinina

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As you know, dears, I don't go to the movies much.  It's not that I don't like them, it's just that I like other things better, and (despite a game effort) it's not feasible to live all possible lives at the same time.  Still, we occasionally indulge when it looks as if a movie's going to be significantly better on a large screen than a small one.  And I was in a fed-up, I know-not-howish state last evening.  Ellen was out, I messaged her that a movie sounded good, she called me back, and negotiations began.  We thought we could both make a 7:00 pm show of Anna Karinina, so I hung up, grabbed a piece of bread and butter and a taxi, and met her on 68th Street at 7:10--plenty of time to see 5 more trailers before the movie started.

Long story short:  I loved it.  I don't like the character Anna Karinina, I don't like the actress Kiera Knightly.  Veronsky is far too pretty for my taste and the costumes are not even remotely accurate: 19th Century-oid, with a hefty side of Hollywood.  I noted all these things in the first 10 minutes or so, and then did not give them a second thought.  Because they didn't matter.  I was enchanted, I was seduced, I was lost in admiration of Joe Wright and Tom Stoppard's melodrama of manners.

Briefly (because I have a duck to get in the oven), the overarching conceit of the movie is that the action of the novel is a play being performed in and around a slightly down-at-heel theater.  Servants place furniture, change scenes, offer tea and papers, coats and corsets.  Movements are choreographed, artificial, deliberate. The actors move from the stage to the flies and wings and under-stage, from the orchestra to the balconies to the foyer, from rooms that look like stage sets to exteriors that are utterly natural, depending on who is in the scene and what they're doing.  It's very carefully thought out, very cleverly done.  At first, mostly what I noticed was the cleverness of it, which went with the cleverness of Stoppard's script.  It was delightful, it was charming.  It wasn't particularly emotionally engaging, but then Stoppard isn't, always.

And then, in the exquisite ball scene, where Anna and Veronsky dance together, Kitty's heart is broken, and Moscow society begins to take notice, I ceased analyzing. I stopped consciously noticing which scenes took place in the theater and which shaded into more naturalistic settings (except for the horse race, of course, which was spendidly, effectively, theatrical), stopped thinking that no decent woman of the time would have been caught dead in a sleeveless gown and no gloves, stopped being aware of the cool and interesting things Wright does with sound (again, the horse race is a wonderful example, with the flutter of Anna's fan shading into the thunder of horse's hooves) and silence, with color, with composition.  I was, in fact, in love.

I know now that I accepted an invitation to be Anna and Veronsky, to share with them in the complete unself-consciousness that surrounds a couple lost in dawning infatuation.  I suspect that Wright is trying to overcome the camera's unbending 3rd person p.o.v and show us what Anna and Veronsky (and Kitty and Levin, whose story gets equal weight, as it should) were experiencing, moment to moment.  I absolutely know that he is saying interesting and thoughtful things about society and rules and morality and about the soul-killing weight of knowing, every minute of every day, that you are being watched and judged.  But that was for afterwards, for when I was in the lobby, watching the Thanksgiving crowds pour into the multiplex to see one of the 12 movies on offer while Ellen was upstairs trying to recover the lightbulbs she'd bought that afternoon and left under our seats.  At the time, I was lost.

Also, I realize now, I liked the fact that none of the characters was easily parsed.  Karinin is stiff and conventional and stifling, but also a good man.  Levin is a bit of a dork, but really tries to understand both Kitty and his difficult brother and his responsibility to his land and his people.  Veronsky genuinely loves Anna, even when she's behaving like a raving loon.  And Anna is a conventional and not very complicated (or bright) woman who thinks she's braver and stronger than she actually is.  They all seem very real, very individual, very human.

Like a lot of interstitial art, Anna Karinina won't be to all tastes. IMDB rates it 7 out of 10, I've read luke-warmish reviews pronouncing it good but not great, well-meaning and ambitious, but puzzling, artificial, and finally, dull.  I found it risky and astonishing and beautiful and very, very sensual.  I'll be interested, if you decide to see it, what you think.  Because, man.  It wasn't the usual literary adaptation.  Not at all.  

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